Saul Leiter and the New York School

Wednesday: Art

These words once came out of his mouth:

“I must admit that I am not a member of the ugly school. I have a great regard for certain notions of beauty even though to some it is an old fashioned idea. Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”

Those were words spoken by an artist who developed his career by associating with other contemporary photographers such as Diane Arbus and finally found and took his own way. He was born on the same year as Diane Arbus, 1923, he was the son of the 40s photographic scene, but deviated greatly from Diane’s style.

He is Saul Leiter.

Saul Leiter Self Portrait c.1949

Saul Leiter

I admit I just recently found out about Saul Leiter and, as soon as I started getting the google image search results, I could not get my eyes off his photographs.

The most interesting aspect of Leiter is that he started off with a career as a painter when at the age of 23 he moved to New York. His photographs actually reflect this aspect by having a certain sensibility easily attributable to a painting. There are a number of photographs which have to be looked at intensely to understand whether they were painted or printed on paper.

Saul Leiter

He was then encouraged to pick up a camera by his friend, abstract expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart. It was Pousette-Dart and W. Eugene Smith who encouraged Leiter to pursue photography and he was soon taking black and white pictures with a 35 mm Leica, which he acquired for a few Eugene Smith prints. In 1948, he started taking color photographs and began associating with, but also diverting from other contemporary photographers such as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Leiter is undoubtedly one of the main artists part of the New York School of photographers during the 1940s and 1950s.

saul-leiter-011-2 02SaulLeiter_haircut1956 Saul-Leiter-6

Even though some of the most recognizable works to our modern eye are Leiter’s colour photographs, his early and most well-known are his black and white photographs. It was later in his life, as the BJP writes, and arguably since the publication of his 2006 monograph Saul Leiter: Early Color, that he became known for his vibrant colour street photographs.

leiter2 1_joanna saul-leiter-16

What strikes me the most about Leiter’s photographs is his ability to beautify rainy days. Especially in his colored photographs, he played a lot with umbrellas, with misty mornings, steamy windows and rain drops. It really fascinates me.

51bf299079415Saul_Leiter_Purple_Umbrella,_1950’s pf106907-4f889293d8faa

Martin Harrison’s words beautifully describe Leiter’s ability to capture the essence of the moments (Martin Harrison is editor and author of Saul Leiter Early Color):

“Leiter’s sensibility . . . placed him outside the visceral confrontations with urban anxiety associated with photographers such as Robert Frank or William Klein. Instead, for him the camera provided an alternate way of seeing, of framing events and interpreting reality. He sought out moments of quiet humanity in the Manhattan maelstrom, forging a unique urban pastoral from the most unlikely of circumstances.”

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Saul Leiter passed away on November 26, 2013

All photographs are © Saul Leiter



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